Several Maryland senators said Tuesday that they believe the public defender oversight board overstepped its authority by firing the agency's director in August and promised legislation next year to change the board's makeup.
Former Public Defender Nancy S. Forster and all three board members testified at a Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee hearing in Annapolis prompted by the ouster.
Board Chairman T. Wray McCurdy, a private attorney in Baltimore County, said Forster was fired after board members combed the public defender budget for savings in tight fiscal times and she refused to make their cuts. He said board members were not trying to "micromanage" the agency.
McCurdy wrote a letter to Forster in July saying that she would be terminated if she did not comply with the board's instructions, including firing the Baltimore County public defender and disbanding several units that he thought steered the agency away from its mission of representing poor criminal defendants.
In August, McCurdy and board member Margaret A. Mead of Baltimore voted to fire Forster. The third member, Theresa L. Moore of Prince George's County, supported Forster.
Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he does not believe the board has the authority to issue a "series of instructions" to Forster and then fire her when she did not comply.
In an interview after the hearing, Frosh said he thought Forster made the right call by refusing to comply with McCurdy's demands.
Frosh said he wants to change state law to increase the oversight board to at least nine members from across the state and more clearly define its role in setting policy for the agency.
Sen. C. Anthony Muse, a Prince George's County Democrat, also questioned the demands the board made of Forster.
The oversight board, appointed by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, is searching for a new top public defender for the 500-lawyer agency and hopes to have one in place by January.